After months of promising to abolish the death penalty, Malaysia’s government now makes U-turn

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Human rights groups are outraged after a Malaysian official said this week that the government has decided not to completely abolish the death penalty.

Instead, Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, told Parliament that the government will leave it up to the courts to decide whether an offender will hang.

This comes just months after Malaysia’s law minister Liew Vui Keong announced in November that there were plans to abolish the death penalty for 32 offences under eight acts of law.

Examples of these offences include murder, kidnapping, gun use, drug trafficking, and involvement in the creation or shipping of weapons of mass destruction.

It was said then that offences previously warranting the death penalty would be replaced with a minimum of 30 years in jail.

At the time, the decision sparked heated public debate, and a large-scale poll showed that most Malaysians did not support the repeal.

In October last year, Liew had said that the government would ensure an appropriate penalty for offences, but added that death penalty was “overly hard” on offenders of crimes like drug-trafficking.

The backtracking of Malaysia’s decision could mean that the fate of fugitive policeman Sirul Azhar Umar is now up in the air. Sirul had fled to Australia just before being sentenced to death for the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu.

According to Reuters, Sirul has been held at an Australian immigration detention center since 2015, and has failed to obtain asylum in Australia.

Under Australian law, Sirul cannot be deported if he faces the death penalty.

In a statement, rights group Lawyers for Liberty said the backtracking of the abolition was “shocking, unprincipled and embarrassing“.

“This is all the more so as the decision for total abolition had made international news and was praised throughout the region and the world,” it said.

Signed off by N Surendran, the advisor for the group, the statement added that the latest decision was “clearly motivated by the fear of a political backlash”.

“We also understand that certain component parties and certain prominent Harapan leaders had preferred to keep the death penalty, resulting in this U-turn.

“In short, the government sacrificed principle on the altar of political expediency,” Surendran wrote.

Another group called The Malaysian Coalition Against the Death Penalty also released a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” with the government’s decision.

It added that while discretionary sentencing was “a small step forward”, the group was still concerned that “at the moment, there is still no developed jurisprudence, protection for the vulnerable and sentencing guideline for which the court should consider in exercising its discretion whether to hand down a death sentence”.